How Can Pastors Deal with Discouragement in Pastoral Ministry?

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from 40 Questions About Pastoral Ministry
by Phil A. Newton

What Credit Is a Miserable Pastor?

In one of his expositions on the Epistle to the Philippians, the twentieth- century London pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones asked the question, “What credit to God is a miserable Christian?”[1] Or, borrowing from Lloyd-Jones, “What credit to God is a miserable pastor?” A little experience in pastoral ministry exposes levels of misery and joy. At times, pastors, representing through shepherding and proclamation the one whom to know is “fullness of joy,” project the contrary (Ps. 16:11; John 15:11). Their struggles with a congregation may seep through sermons, hallway conversations, and pastoral visits. Their unsettled feelings over whether their ministries have achieved “success” tend to keep them lurching in directions to find the elusive ministry “sweet spot.” They may become calculated in their ministry pursuits in the attempt to find joy, yet rarely experience joy because they try to find it in the wrong places. Discouragement settles in.

Joy should be front and center in pastoral ministry. This doesn’t mean challenging issues in ministry won’t battle joy. Those battles happen in the normal practice of serving a congregation. Yet precisely at this point, pastors must learn where to find deep, satisfying, and contagious joy. If pastors do not walk in joy, then they will scarcely be able to point their flock to living in joy.

Jesus’s Path to True Joy

It’s helpful to track along Luke’s Gospel to see how the intense life of following Jesus and dying to self doesn’t contradict living in indescribable joy. Jesus told us if we wish to follow him, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and keep following him (Luke 9:23). In doing so, we’re brought into levels of joy the world cannot comprehend.

As he spoke that decisive word on being a disciple, Jesus began his path to Jerusalem. He told the disciples of his impending suffering, death, and resurrection (Luke 9:22, 44). Knowing what lay ahead, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, a city that had killed prophets of old and rebelled against God under a thin veneer of faithful religious practice (Luke 9:51). Along the way, he countered soft professions partnered with caveats, excuses, and self-centered priori- ties with the terse statement, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Jesus only wants disciples that go the way of the cross. And yet, it’s the way of the cross that leads to true joy.

Amazingly, we get a hint of the spirit among his followers when Jesus sent out the Seventy (Luke 10:1–20). He sent them “as lambs in the midst of wolves,” with no provisions and the certainty that some would listen to them and others, reject them (Luke 10:3–12). Did they return with dull, discouraging, and despondent spirits? Instead, “the seventy returned with joy” (Luke 10:17).

Luke stays on that theme of joy as he narrates the story of Jesus receiving the seventy disciples after their mission into the Galilean cities. In doing so, he helps us to listen to the tone of Jesus and his followers, discovering the immeasurable joy of belonging to him. Jesus wants his followers to live in the joy of belonging. That’s particularly true of his undershepherds, whom he calls to lead his people into greater joys. But how do we live in that kind of joy?

Joy in Unusual Places

Six times in Luke 10:17–24, the scene describing the Seventy’s return, Luke uses four different terms that express joy, rejoicing, or happiness (v. 17, chara; v. 20, chairos; v. 21, agalliaō; v. 23, makarios). Clearly, he presses that point in this context. Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, the cross, resurrection, and ascension, and “for the joy set before Him, endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). He called his followers to joy and exemplified it even with the days of his passion just ahead. But to Jesus, joy didn’t equate to giddiness or absence of troubles, but rather the deep elation and exuberance that wells from our hearts when we know we belong to God through Christ. It is consciousness of relationship and hope for eternity. External circumstances cannot deter it or control it—not even disagreeable leadership or failed plans or cantankerous sheep. This joy, as Lloyd-Jones put it, “is the product, almost the by-product, of my concentration upon my relationship to God in Jesus Christ.”[2] Jesus directs the disciples to this kind of joy when they return from their mission.

We need to get the picture. He told the Seventy as they headed out into ministry to expect “discouragements (10:2), dangers (10:3), and deficits (10:4),” as James Edwards notes (citing Luke). “The stage seems to have been set, in other words, for the poorly equipped and underprepared disciples to return limping in defeat.”[3] It was the perfect formula for discouragement! But just the opposite happened. “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name’” (Luke 10:17). Here they knew the joy of success in their work. That’s certainly commendable and normal. That’s where we typically find our joy—accomplishments, abilities, successful tasks, and satisfactory experiences. Joy, the way the Seventy saw it, depends on what we do or experience. If we preach a great sermon or counsel a poor marriage back to harmony or lead a church to adopt elder plurality or welcome lots of new members, we feel joy. But herein lurks danger: that kind of joy is temporary and may unwittingly be dependent upon personal success. J. C. Ryle warns, “The time of success is a time of danger to the Christian’s soul.”[4] And why is that so? That type of joy might blind us to true, lasting, richer, fuller joy in Christ.

Jesus responded to the Seventy’s elation with a gentle redirection: “But He said to them, ‘I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning’” (Luke 10:18). That could have been a prophetic word anticipating the cross,[5] Jesus acknowledging the original fall of Satan,[6] or Jesus seeing the impact of the nearness of the kingdom of God in the overthrow of Satan applied in that mission.[7] Maybe there’s a combination of all three, although I tend to think the theme of the coming near of the kingdom of God, as expressed in Luke 10:9 and 11, is the point. The disciples were seeing evidences of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom! Edwards is right: “Whenever the kingdom of God is truly proclaimed, the work of God is accomplished in ways that even its proclaimers are often unaware of.”[8] More happened than these disciples anticipated.

But thoughts of personal success must be quickly corrected. Jesus does just that since true joy doesn’t hinge on things we accomplish: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you” (Luke 10:19). In other words, Jesus reminded them that they did not succeed in casting out demons by their own authority. That authority over evil came through Christ. Satan and his minions cannot ultimately conquer Christ’s followers. Romans 8:31–39 is true![9]

Joy through Settled Assurance

So true joy is not found in success itself but only when achievement turns us to glory in the Lord. Rightly understood, any success should be attributed to the grace of God shown to us for that particular act. In this way, we turn our achievement back to the Lord with thanks and glorying in him. Otherwise we enter the danger zone of pride. It lurks to destroy us, especially in pastoral ministry! “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov. 16:18). As Thomas Watson warns, “Pride is apt to breed in our holy things as the worm breeds in sweetest fruit.”[10] We don’t find true joy in the pathway of pride. It’s only found in the humble road of cross bearing and seeing our joy in belonging to Jesus.

“Nevertheless,” Jesus stops the train of thought and elation in the Seventy’s apparently successful ministry. Jesus calls us to live in far richer joy: “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Here is true joy, taking greatest pleasure in what God has done for eternity through Christ on our behalf. The ancient world used “recorded” for inscribing someone’s name on an official register or citizenship roll.[11] The divine passive verb indicates God as the one who has recorded our names in heaven. What he records cannot be removed (as the perfect passive expresses). So, the call to “rejoice,” as Moisés Silva notes, is in finding “joy in God’s electing love.”[12]

A shift must take place in our ministry thinking. Here’s where we need to find our chief joy. We discover God’s electing love that chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3–6), called us through the gospel of Christ by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:7–14), regenerated us and gave grace to repent and believe the good news of Christ (Eph. 2:1–10), sealed us with the Spirit until he brings us into his presence (Eph. 1:13–14), adopted us into his family forever (Gal. 4:1–7), and gives us an eternal hope in Christ—these are quite enough to produce joy every day (Eph. 1:18–23). The weight of assurance that fills us with joy is, then, not on our success with the church’s leadership or perceived level of ministry effectiveness or how much approval we receive from our congregation. Instead, it rests on the faithfulness of the God that chose us, pursued us, and loved us enough to send his Son to the cross on our behalf. Jesus told his disciples, “What you did on your mission was wonderful, but that’s not where you’re to find your joy. It’s found in what God has done by calling you his own and se- curing you forever.” That’s where pastors must find true joy that conquers discouragement.

 

[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Peace: An Exposition of Philippians, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 14.

[2] Lloyd-Jones, Life of Peace, 15.

[3] James Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 311.

[4] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 2:359.

[5] David Gooding, According to Luke: The Third Gospel’s Ordered Historical Narrative (Belfast: Myrtlefield House, 2013), 207.

[6] Ryle, Expository Thoughts, 362.

[7] Philip G. Ryken, Luke, REC, 2 vols. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 1:525.

[8] Edwards, Luke, 312.

[9] Edwards, Luke, 313.

[10] Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (1666; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 79.

[11] NIDNTTE, ἐγγράφω, 1:593–94

[12] NIDNTTE, 4:647.


This post is adapted from the recently released 40 Questions About Pastoral Ministry, written by Phil A. Newton.  If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

In 40 Questions about Pastoral Ministry, veteran pastor Phil Newton provides trustworthy answers to 40 of the most common and pressing questions relating to the life and work of the pastor. Covering five major categories–such as development, practices, and preaching–Newton equips pastors to successfully handle everyday duties and challenges, including:

  • Remaining spiritually healthy
  • Strengthening your marriage
  • Dealing with discouragement
  • Avoiding pitfalls
  • Leading elder’s meetings
  • Mentoring future leaders
  • Preaching through books of the Bible
  • Conducting marriages and funerals
  • Practicing church discipline
  • Leading change and revitalization, and much more

Basing his answers on Scripture, theological reflection, and personal experience, Newton serves as a mentor and guide for pastors at every stage of ministry. The questions and answers are self-contained, and topics of interest can be easily located. Pastors will want to consult this volume often for authoritative advice on all aspects of pastoral ministry.


Want to learn more about the 40 Questions Series? Visit the new website 40Questions.net!

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About Author

Phil A. Newton (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; DMin, Fuller Theological Seminary) is senior pastor at South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. His previous books include The Way of Faith and Elders in Congregational Life.

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